The Legal Aid Society and its Partners Brief United Nations Human Rights Committee on the United States’ Failure to Fulfill Treaty Obligations to Protect Victims of Sex Trafficking
FRIDAY, MARCH 14, 2014

This week, Kate Mogulescu, Supervising Attorney of The Legal Aid Society’s Trafficking Victims Advocacy Project, joined civil society leaders from around the world in Geneva, Switzerland to brief the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) on the United States’ failure to protect victims of sex trafficking. The Legal Aid Society and the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic at the City University of New York School of Law (IWHRC) brought attention to the criminalization of adult and child victims of sex trafficking and how the US must do more to provide an effective remedy for trafficked persons who have been criminalized.

The briefing is part of a UN review of the United States’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a treaty which, among other rights, guarantees the right to be free from slavery and servitude and codifies the State’s obligation to protect children. The US ratified the ICCPR in 1992. Every four years, the UN reviews member countries’ compliance with the human rights treaty and asks the country to respond to a series of focused questions.

“The continuation of a criminal justice approach to sex trafficking results in high rates of arrests of trafficking victims and serious collateral harms, including criminal records, traumatization, limited housing and employment options, risk of deportation, and deep-seated mistrust of law enforcement,” said Mogulescu. Cindy Soohoo, IWHRC Director, reinforced that “the U.S. has a clear obligation to provide an effective remedy to individuals who are improperly prosecuted and convicted, including an obligation to ensure that, where trafficked persons are criminalized, they have access to a range of remedies—including medical and psychological care, compensation, vacatur of convictions.” On Wednesday, at a pre-review consultation with the U.S. government delegation, Mogulescu urged the Department of Justice to examine its policy in this area, particularly to ensure that federally funded anti-trafficking initiatives do not result in the criminalization of trafficked people.

In 2010, New York became the first American state to enact a law that allows victims of sex trafficking to vacate prostitution convictions that were a result of trafficking. “Vacatur is an important first step, as it recognizes the harm caused by the criminal justice system” explained Mogulescu, “but the US must better train law enforcementmake better efforts to avoid criminalization in the first place, and to include non-prostitution offenses in the universe of trafficking-related convictions that may be vacated.”

The UNHRC heard from members of civil society as well as government representatives. The Committee is expected to issue “concluding observations” later this month that will indicate its areas of concern and recommendations for future action by the United States.

The LAS visit to Geneva follows up on a history of advocacy efforts by the Trafficking Victim Advocacy Project and its partners, including a report recently released by IWHRC. The organizations asked the UN to focus its attention on the issue of criminalization of trafficking victims and to encourage the U.S. to reevaluate current policing and criminal justice practices that harm vulnerable populations.